Sean Cavanagh: 'Red card experience has made me more resilient'
By John Harrington
Sean Cavanagh’s decision to commit to a 16th season of inter-county football came as no surprise.
There was no way the Tyrone footballer was going to allow his career to be bookended by that red-card in his team’s All-Ireland Quarter-Final defeat to Mayo.
He felt lower than a snake’s belly for a good few days afterwards, but in the end used that anguish to harden his resolve to make amends.
The final chapter of his inter-county career will be soon written, and he’s determined to do all he can to ensure it’s an uplifting one.
“For a week or two after that I was probably in a bad place, alright,” Cavanagh told GAA.ie. “But, look, I suppose things like that have happened throughout my career and I've seen it happening other players as well and you do draw on your experience to get over it.
“And just drive on, because that's all you know. And you realise there's obviously more to life when you get back into your family environment. You realise that with your kids, your wife, your work, that life does go on.
“It'll go down as one of the most disappointing days of my football careers, there's no getting away from that, but hopefully it will make me a bit more resilient and a bit more focused on getting back there and producing a different outcome."
2016 felt like a missed opportunity for this Tyrone team because they had built up an impressive head of steam before they were ambushed by Mayo in that All-Ireland Quarter-Final.
It was as if they weren’t quite prepared for the intensity that the Connacht side brought to bear on the contest, but it was still a game they probably should have won.
With the remove of a few months Cavanagh can now take many positives from the season, but he admits everyone in the group feels like they could have achieved even more.
“I remember sitting here this time last year and people asking me what I thought our expectations for 2016 was,” says Cavanagh.
“At that stage I remember saying, look, I'd love to win the Ulster title back. We hadn't had it in five years, obviously.
“When you're looking back now you're thinking we went unbeaten for 20-odd games and eventually won the Ulster title back off Donegal on a hot summer's day in Clones.
“You know, I think overall we would have taken that this time last year. But, ach, particularly with the way the Mayo game finished for myself as an individual, you're thinking things could be so much better.
“No disrespect to Tipperary, but we knew that if were able to account for Mayo we possibly would be sitting in an All-Ireland Final. You saw Mayo had their chance to win that Final, so you wonder what if.
“If you had to ask me this time last year how the season would go for us I'd have taken that, but if had have asked me before the Mayo game I would have said, no, there's more in us.
“There definitely is that feeling that the squad has something to prove and the squad can hopefully take that extra step and go towards a semi-final or a final. I think that's where we think we can compete if we do consider ourselves to be a top four or top five side, that's what we have to do.”
After their Ulster Championship success, Tyrone looked like the team best equipped in the country to dethrone the Dubs.
They had the pure athleticism you need as a minimum to compete with Jim Gavin’s team, and outstanding individual players like Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte in a rich vein of form.
All over the field they seemed to match up quite well against Dublin, but in the end we never found out for real whether they had what it took.
Cavanagh admits the Tyrone players themselves had been measuring themselves against Dublin from a distance, and the fact that they never had the opportunity to do it up close and personal is a source of real regret.
“You always do. I think most teams and players would think the same. But, yeah, I suppose if you had of asked me after the Ulster Final could we match up to the Dubs, I'd have said absolutely.
“We didn't get our chance to do that, and that's a regret, because you want to be playing the best teams in those pressurised scenarios of a semi-final or final.
“Because that's where you'll really find out what you're made of and what your team-mates are made of. You just have to admire a team that has gone through whatever it is, 24 or 25 championship matches, and lost just one of them.
“And even the one they lost, they probably lost it from over-committing and Donegal catching them on the counter. They lost it down to a system-error rather than an actual poor performance.
“Jim Gavin has just made a serious machine there. But, look, if we didn't think we could beat them we wouldn't be training as hard as we are to try to get up to their level.
“It's up to everyone else to take it on a notch. Okay, they do have more resources than most counties, but at the same time when you get on a cold, training pitch, they only have an hour and a half to train the same way we have an hour and a half of training.
“Other teams have to make it count to bridge that gap that's there at the moment.”
Cavanagh was a key cog in the Tyrone team that won three All-Irelands in six years between 2003 and 2008, but he believes the current Dublin side are an even more dominant force than the Red Hand County were in their heyday.
“To be honest, I didn't think that a team was good enough to dominate the way Dublin have dominated,” he says.
“You have to take your hat off to them, because when we were in that sort of era we slipped up in a quarter-final in '04 against Mayo.
“No matter how often you tell yourself that you're not complacent and not to be complacent, but somewhere along the line we always found that we ran out of a bit of gas and didn't have that same hunger that you need to have to get us over the line the first time.
“That's what's impressed me so much about this Dublin team - they haven't been relying on individuals to keep them at the top. If Bernard Brogan or Paul Flynn or Diarmuid Connolly has an off day, then someone else steps up and scores.
“It was the same in the All-Ireland Final. Cormac Costello came on and kicked three points. You just have to admire that. They seem to have that ability that when someone isn't doing it, someone else says, 'right, it's my time to drive the thing on'.
“That's a sign of an amazing team. Most teams will rely on three or four really key individuals in the top games so those individuals will be targeted and taken out in some form or fashion. But when you have other guys who are able and willing to step up to the mark and be leaders, you have a serious machine.
“But, are they invincible? No, they're not. I think everyone should know that they're not. No team in my eyes is invincible and 2017 is a completely new year.
“Will they be at the top table? Of course they will be. But once you get into that knock-out zone from All-Ireland quarter-final stages onwards you can get nipped.
“And if Mayo had a bit more luck on their hands in the All-Ireland Final on the first day in particular, they'd be All-Ireland champions now and we wouldn't be having these conversations. I think we all know they can be beaten, but it's going to take a serious side.”
Cavanagh believes that this Tyrone team can be that side if they continue on their upward curve.
He wouldn’t be coming back in 2017 if he didn’t think they were capable of winning the All-Ireland title.
Were they to do so it would be the perfect ending to his inter-county career that he so badly craves. And it’ll be all the sweeter because Tyrone’s decline since their last title has made him truly appreciate success in a way he didn’t before.
“There's no doubt. I remember winning back to back Ulster titles in '09 and 2010 and at the time I didn't even hardly recognise that as success. I just looked at them as another game that gets us to an All-Ireland quarter-final.
“But in five years watching Donegal and Monaghan win Ulster, then all of a sudden it gets the juices flowing again. And when we won it this year it really meant a lot to the county and it meant a lot to me personally.
“It's the same with Sam. I suppose from '03 to '08 I just took it as normal that we were going to be there or there abouts every year and winning it every couple of years.
“Now we haven't seen it for eight years, and it fairly hits home. When we won it in '03 I remember touring around with it and people telling me stories about going to ever All-Ireland Final for 50 years and never seeing Tyrone win it.
It didn't really mean an awful lot to me because I was a 19 or 20-year-old lad who was riding the crest of a wave.
“But now you really can relate to those stories whereby it's gone eight or nine years and you begin to forget what it's like to be the champion of Ireland. I feel now that we have the team that can probably compete at that level again.
“For a few years there you were asking questions about whether you could do it. I think we have a serious quality team that can do it now. But just because you have the ability to do something doesn't mean you do it.
“We have a big step to make, but we're striving to make it.”